In 2011, Peter Berry and his family – mom, dad, brother, and sister -- were on their way back to Houston, returning from their annual summer road trip. This year, it was a trip to Colorado Springs.
Peter, 9 years old at the time, sat with his two siblings in the back seat as his parents sat upfront. Another car was on the other side of the road, across the dotted yellow lines.
The driver in the other car tried to change a CD for his newborn daughter in the backseat before getting distracted, losing control of the vehicle, and swerving into opposing traffic. He rammed Peter’s family head-on.
Both of Peter’s parents were killed. Peter, and his brother Aaron, both suffered T-10 spinal cord injuries, leaving them paralyzed from the waist down. Peter’s sister broke many bones but walked away relatively healthy.
“In that instant,” Peter Berry said. “The foundation in which my brother and my sister and I, and both families involved, lived our lives was just swept out from under us.”
In a flash, everything Peter Berry had known as a child was ripped away; his family, his ability to walk, his love for running around, and playing team sports as a kid, all of it was gone.
After the crash, Peter and Aaron were sent to Shriner’s Children Hospital in Chicago to rehab. They spent about three and a half months rehabbing in Chicago before moving back to Houston, where they did a year and a half of outpatient therapy.
There, at the hospital, a recreational therapist introduced Peter to the sport of wheelchair basketball. Peter had loved playing basketball before the incident, but never even knew wheelchair basketball existed. He is now one of the best players in the country, starring for the University of Alabama.
“Wheelchair basketball provided a new outlet for physical activity and for aggression and for emotion,” Peter said. “It really was like a saving grace, which was incredible.”
On Wednesday nights, the hospital had rec nights, where they brought out sports chairs. Peter remembers thinking to himself, ‘what are these chairs?’ But when he got in them and started playing, he fell in love with the sport and the outlet it provided for the physicality and competitiveness that truly brought Peter to life.
When the Berry brothers went back to Houston, they moved in with their aunt and uncle and two cousins. It wasn’t easy, but Berry’s extended family had always been close. Before the accident, Peter and his brother would spend time there during the weekends. So, when they went to live with them, there was certainly an adjustment, but Peter’s aunt and uncle made it as easy as possible for him and his brother.
“There are no words to really describe how grateful I am for them and how much they’ve given us,” Peter said.
When Peter returned to Houston, he didn’t want to stop playing the sport that gave him newfound happiness. There was another family that had just moved to the Houston area who had a son, Abraham, who was one of the best wheelchair basketball players in the country.
Peter’s family reached out to Abraham’s family, and they told them to come to meet them at a gym they played at. From there, they went every week and fell in love with the culture and community of wheelchair basketball in the Houston area.
“Basketball really kind of completed everything that we needed,” Peter said.
When Peter first picked up the sport, he never imagined the heights it could take him.
“[I thought], this is good for my mental health and it’s good physically and this is what I miss,” Peter said. “But I never fully comprehended the extent to where it would take me.”
Where did it take him? Well, Peter became the No. 1 wheelchair basketball recruit in the country as a senior in high school and got a full scholarship to play at the University of Alabama, where he is currently a sophomore. He has also traveled the world to Israel and Mexico for global events.
At just nine years old, the emotion of losing his mom and dad hadn’t fully settled in yet. Through all the physical and mental challenges Peter was enduring, he never fully grasped the magnitude of living the rest of his life without his parents.
“In all honesty, I was so focused on my day-to-day, like staying alive and, you know, ‘How am I going to go to school? How am I going to get dressed?’” Peter said. “I was so focused on just staying alive that I didn’t give a lot of energy to my emotions.”
Peter’s journey is one of triumph. He doesn’t want anyone’s pity. To him, adversity is an opportunity and he’s grateful for every opportunity he has. However, as he got older, overcoming unthinkable circumstances didn’t come without struggle or rough days, as he tried to make sense of an unfathomable situation. Peter remembers the horrible feeling of waking up for school on Parents’ Day, knowing his mom and dad wouldn’t be there.
In 2018, Peter won the national title in high school and was named the MVP of the championship game. It was certainly a moment of joy, but also one he wishes he could share with his parents.
The low moments come and go. Peter struggled for a while with dark thoughts, sometimes questioning why such tragedies happen, and why to him?
How could he not? When life is harsh to you, it’s hard to love life back. But Peter found a way. He’s learned the importance of just getting away and having time to himself.
“In those moments, remind yourself, like it’s OK to go somewhere quiet or private and say to yourself out loud, you know, I’m grateful for everything I do have,” Peter said.
One of the things that has allowed Peter to get through difficult moments is watching videos and reading stories of people overcoming brutal situations and prospering. Peter read the book “Can’t hurt me” by David Goggins twice. Goggins’ story is about his nightmarish upbringing and how he was able to overcome it to become one of the world’s top endurance athletes.
Peter draws parallels in his life as he reads, helping him push through and stay motivated on especially difficult days.
He credits an incredible support system that embraced him and cared for him, which allowed him to overcome tragedy and get to where he is today.
Peter’s aunt says that positivity is just part of who he is, but Peter attributes his optimism to the special people he has around him. He couldn’t do it without his aunt, uncle, siblings, cousins, doctors and coaches. And, of course, his brother Aaron.
Aaron is a year younger than Peter and also plays on the Alabama wheelchair team as a freshman. The two brothers have been interlocked, through tragedy and triumph.
“Sharing the experiences with my brother, like every time Aaron and I would go through something, it was really both of us,” Peter said. “So, we kind of understood, you know, what the other was going through.”
Now, as teammates, the tough love takes place on the practice court every day. They compete, but they are also each other’s biggest fans.
“You’ll have to say hey guys, y’all are teammates not just brothers,” Alabama head coach Ford Burttram said. “They both try to get the best out of each other, and they both want the best for each other. So it’s a really special bond those two have.”
Peter is a ferocious competitor on the court and has showcased that for Alabama, one of the top teams in the National Wheelchair Basketball league this season.
“He’s been everything we’ve asked,” Burttram said. “He’s maturing and growing and physically, he’s a specimen. He’s also intelligent enough to know the game and understand the game and he’s got natural leadership skills. … His work ethic is what I think sets him apart from other players.”
Coach Burttram and Peter have had difficult conversations about Peter’s journey and what he’s been through. But you would never know the heartbreak he’s been through by the way he carries himself daily. Burttram has seen his support system up close and sees how his family rallies behind him.
“He’s been down a tough road, but he never complains about it and he’s always a glass-half-full kind of guy and that speaks volumes to his character and just to who he really is,” Burttram said.
On his signing day in 2019, when he committed to play at Alabama, he told a story that encapsulates his attitude and mindset as he navigates a life that is foreign to most college students.
When Peter went to compete in the Maccabi Games in Israel for Team USA, the Israeli national team beat them in their first two matchups. Peter had an encounter with the captain of the Israeli team and was deeply impacted by his story. A terrorist broke into his home when he was a kid, and he was the only survivor. It made Peter realize something that has shaped his daily mindset.
“To see him get in the gym and smile and win Israel a medal in the Maccabi games was inspiring,” Peter said. “I’m thinking in my head ‘What excuse do I have?’ … Every problem you think you have, someone else has a worse problem.”
“I went out the next day and scored 32 and we beat them for the first time,” Peter added with a grin.
Peter continues to grow as a person and a competitor with no measuring stick insight for his aspirations. For now, he’s giving everything to being a student-athlete at Alabama, hoping to capture a national title. Eventually, he wants to play for Team USA in the Paralympics and continue to climb in the sport.
Burttram knows Peter can do whatever he strives for, but Peter’s coach wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up a motivational speaker with the inspiration Peter is to him and everyone he encounters.
Whatever is in store for Peter down the road, his approach won’t change. Peter’s positivity, gratitude, and appreciation for life will carry him wherever he goes.
Because, as he says, “no matter how hard an individual has it, someone to the right or left of them has it worse.”
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